A few days ago, while the world around us was rapidly changing by the hour, a giant in the wine business passed away. Michael Broadbent MW. He was 92 and lived about as full a life connected to the wine industry at the hip, as any man I may have met. He began his professional life in the wine industry in 1955, and dominated decades as one of fine wine’s great voices. He was a towering presence these decades, a face, a voice and a presence that occupied a large space everywhere fine wines were sold and discussed.
I became obsessed with wine in the 1970s when there was not a lot of literature on old wines or for that matter any wines. If you wanted to look at tasting notes on wine, well, you had to dig. Robert Finnagen started a monthly newsletter devoted to fine wine in the 70s. Gerald Asher wrote wonderfully long and intelligent columns in Gourmet, Bon Appetit occasionally mentioned a few wines, but fresh reviews on what was available to purchase was hard to find. Robert Parker and Wine Spectator would come later.
The bibles for me were Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine (lovingly updated recently with the brilliant Jancis Robinson), and Michael Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book. Both books (and most all the updated versions) are dogeared and with me today The Atlas traveled on my lap on many wine trips to France, Italy, Spain and Germany. I would have been literally lost without it, but that is for much more discussion in another diary chapter. The Great Vintage Wine Book was what I read to dream and form opinions on the greatest wines in the world.
Michael began his journey in the wine trade at Harvey’s in London in 1955 and became a Master of Wine in 1960. In 1966, at Christie’s Auction House, he began a journey that changed the lives of most of us true grape nuts of the 70s. At Christy’s, he pioneered the auctioning of the greatest old and new wines in the world, and what was so important to all of us, he took extensive notes on these wines. These notes are the substance of the Great Wine Book.
Here you can read, and immerse yourself into the world of what wines from the 1700s, 1800s, and early mid-1900s tasted like. Here is where you could, for the first time, read what early California wines tasted like. How about an 1895 Napa Valley Inglenook? Early BVs, Heitz, Martin Ray, Charles Krug, the first Mondavi wines and others from the 40s to the 90s are chronicled here.
The formatting was simple, easy to quickly digest. Take the year 1943 in the chapter California Red. Michael would rate the vintage, which in 1943 received a full 5 out of 5 stars. Here he reviewed Beaulieu and Inglenook, the latter received 5 out of 5 stars. These are huge scores that accompany usually the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy. He referred to the 43 Inglenook as, “A sort of Napa Latour. Incredibly deep and intense…..” tasted (June 1982). Michael was a true champion of Napa Valley, quite possibly our very first international superstar to stand up for our wines. Did they age? He stated they did indeed, especially if well cellared, and put that question early to rest. It was his opinions and tasting notes of Napa Valley wines that, simply stated, changed the direction of my life and drove me literally to the Napa Valley to become a vintner.
So, you see I owe Michael a lot. We met on several occasions in the early 80s. Sometimes at Belle and Barney Rhodes home in Rutherford over dinner. I will tell you more about these amazing dinners in the future, but they were seminal gatherings for many of us in our formative years in the Napa Valley. These dinner parties orchestrated by Belle and Barney brought every important person who traveled to the Napa Valley in search of what was happening and put them together with Napa producers and dreamers like me. Their home was the social epicenter of wine and food in California. It’s story is still untold.
Michael was the very first auctioneer for the very first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981. I was on the founding board of vintners for this first auction, and working with Michael was memorable for many reasons in retrospect. He was not a brilliant auctioneer, but peering over his reading glasses, he did command your respect and your attention. I looked up to him as a Wine Legend who had probably tasted more great wine than anyone on the planet at the time. From my vantage point he was the consummate gentleman, impeccably dressed, tall and lean, silver haired, wonderful British accent, and a good dry sense of humor. If you wanted to buy the world’s greatest wines, you wanted to buy them from Michael. He thoroughly enjoyed good wine and the company it brought to his table. He never claimed to have an expert’s palate.
I pulled out two editions of the Great Wine Book, the first and the “New” today while I wrote this. I will carry them around with me for a few days to read. Actually, now that I’m sheltering in place, they might spend more than a few days in my lap. Michael, your exquisite wine notes may not reflect the wines today as they did when you wrote them. But we have all aged, and now you have left the room. Thank you for the time you spent with us.